Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Bessie at church with traditional celebration face paint
There is a saying we all have that is similar to this: "Things could be worse, someone else has it harder than you do."  This is supposed to cheer us when we are feeling like life has hit us hard with tragedy all at once.  For some reason this saying never brought much comfort to me... I can't relax in the knowledge that someone else suffering more than I am in this world.  

Before you read this, I must preface: Bessie loves my blog, and says so.  She told me once "You must come and interview me so that you can write about me."  She asked, specifically,  that I tell this story, but it is a painful one.  Please do not think that this is exploitive, but rather a testament to the strength and power of a God who sustains us.

Here in South Africa there is a division between the people who have nothing and the people who have something.  People who have something are Mario and I - we live in a nice, comfortable cottage next to terrific peaceful neighbors.  We get to fly home about once a year, and have two cars.  By comparison, many people here have nothing.  One of my best friends, Portia is a single mom who lost her husband, Thembe, three years ago.  She lives in a one room place in Diepsloot that I now know better than to call a shack (it is literally a boxcar) with one bed.  Still, Portia has a relatively nice place compared to most in the township.  She has good neighbors, well-behaved children and a wonderful job that pays her well enough to send her kids to private school.  She is happy and fortunate and very thankful... and a leader wherever she goes.

Bessie is also a single mom in Diepsloot.  Rather than dying, her husband ran off with her neighbor and best friend, leaving her with six kids to raise alone.  Bessie didn't have a job and had to scrape to make ends meet.    If you ask Bessie about her ex-husband she says he never loved her and was a man sent from hell to steal her virginity and her peace (she feels strongly about this).  She also says that if it were not for God, she would have sunk into depression when he left, since it was so close to the death of their young son, who had been hit by a car and died.  The more Bessie shares, the more you realize she has been through several terrible times that only the strong survive.
Bessie is full of love and wise sayings that come out funny.  She once comforted one of the kids at Sunday who had been falsely accused by saying,  "You know, my angel, the horns that people try to pin on you, they don't stay."  She makes me laugh, with her deep and solemn voice, uttering these cute sayings, and she laughs when I laugh, glad that her humor is not lost.  When I forget to do something or bring something to church, she says "You know, this disease of forgetfulness is contagious because I am getting it too."  She can say several of these things each day, making it very pleasant to be around her.

Right after Margaret Julia died, Bessie's father past away in her homeland, Qua Qua.  She was devastated, and as we are her friends, Portia and I sat with her in her house and cried with her, prayed with her, loved her.

When she returned from the burial (a custom very sacred to most black South Africans, regardless of tribe or culture) she was relieved to see that her mother was in peace and the funeral had been fully payed for.  She was happy that she and her children got to go home to see the family and grieve together.

Last weekend, while we were having dinner with friends, Mario got a phone call from one of the Diepsloot leaders.  He told him that Bessie's sister had taken her life, and had also "taken her children with her".  Mario, in the most respectful way possible, thanked him for telling us and asked what should be done next.  The leader had told us that another burial would cripple the family, not just emotionally but financially.  He also said that visits should be made, and people should "sit with Bessie".

The next morning I called Portia and caught her relaxing on a Saturday (very rare!). I told her that Bessie had just lost her sister, and under bad circumstances, and that she possibly had her children witness the event right in front of them.  Portia, like me was shocked and offered to go with me as I sat with Bessie.

Armed with groceries and cold drinks, we walked up the street where Bessie lives, past card-playing, beer-drinking groups congregating in the facades of the shacks that lined the street.  Beer makes normal people bold, and the remarks about a white lady carrying groceries "like she stays here" were ignored by me and Portia, who set our faces towards Bessie's house.  As we approached, we could see her through her garden gate (Bessie lives in a beautiful brick house with a front garden that stands out as much as she does in this neighborhood).  She was doing her washing and talking to another visitor, who was there to grieve with her.  Her face was smeared with mud (a grieving sign) and when she looked up to see us, she pursed her lips together and opened the gate.  Her tears left noticeable tracks in the muddy face wash.

We went into her house and said we were sorry about all of this.  She recounted to us what had happened.  Her sister, depressed from her father's death and her her no-good husband leaving, made scrambled eggs in the morning, sprinkled rat poison on the top of them and then chili on top of that, so that the poison would not be noticeable.  She ate them, and fed them to her children, ten and five. After breakfast, the young son ran next door to alert the neighbors that his mother had fallen down and was foaming at the mouth, and now his sister was doing the same.  When the neighbors began to congregate, the boy himself fell down, and the ambulance was called.  There was (as usual) a delay in their response, and the boy died also.

I sat, frozen, realizing Mabuti's description "She took her children with her," meant that she had also killed her children.  I thought that they had seen her take her own life.

As Bessie told the story her young daughter, Kena, listened and ate a small bag of chips.  She obviously had heard the story before now.  Portia asked Bessie if she had told her children and if they all knew.  Bessie said that they all knew, and asked why this happened.  Their second question was if Bessie would ever do this.  The thought made me shiver.

Bessie's response was typical Bessie: "I told them that I would never do this terrible thing, because my hope and faith is in the Lord.  Why should I kill myself because my husband is a sneak or if my own father has died?"  They took comfort in this.  Bessie's strength is in the Lord.  Her children, also.  We sat, the four of us at her kitchen table and talked about many things.  There were lots of tears.  There were lots of stories.  At one point, Bessie and Portia recounted about Thembe's death.  I still remember the day he died.

Even so, there was laughter.  Bessie was recounting how she heard the news about her sister poisoning herself with rat poison that she herself had kept in her own home.  When all of her kids had gone to sleep that night, Bessie took the poison and threw it out in the trash heap.  Now, she said, she would kill the rats the old-fashioned way, "with a shoe or a broom."  The image made me giggle, and we all joined in.  Bessie laughed the most: a welcome relief.

As we left, Portia and I marveled at Sis Bessie's strength.  Who can imagine this grief??  She was so composed, so strong.  Her only worry was for her mother, who was devastated.  I dropped off Portia at her house (after checking on some neighborhood kids), and then went down the 511, past Cedar Lakes to Northriding, with its stables and its electric fences.

Tragedy like this knows no bounds.  Where is our strength?

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